It’s fire season in Northern California; the sky transitions further from blue to a dirty brown with every curve as we drive west on 299 towards Weaverville, home of Hell’s Hole, one of the Trinity River’s most popular class III rapids.
I’m with Trek Tech’s running writer Matt Moseley, and we’re about to meet up with TT’s kayaking gear reviewer, David Skinner, a born-and-bred water rat to go kayaking about 8 miles east of the 800-acre Flat fire in Del Loma. Fingers crossed that it won’t spread to our take-out point in Big Flat.
“The fire’s not going to get to my jeep, right?” – Matt Moseley
We’re running a 6.5-mile section (rated class 1-2 during normal flow and 2-3 during high flow) to test the Straitedge Attack Whitewater (Advanced Elements’ new whitewater inflatable kayak) research that section of the river for a profile, and to put some extracurricular work on Teva’s Fuse-Ion shoes and Revo’s Water lenses, reviewed by Skinner in the Waterway frames, tested by me in the Bearing frames. David’s been doing this his whole life, but Matt and I are enthusiastic novices, with just a few runs to our names.
We were just over halfway through the run, past a few cliff jumps and some rapids, when I manage to get tipped out of my kayak at a class III rapid called Hell’s Gate. I made it through with no issues last year, but today the water’s running at 1,100 cubic feet per second (fps), almost triple the usual 400fps.
“We were running that river high for sure.” – David Skinner
I try to slide out of the kayak, but the straps over my knees are too tight, and I end up stuck. It wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m in just a few feet of water, so I find myself upside down in a kayak, getting dragged face-first over a submerged boulder field like a ping pong ball in a plinko game. Check out the video below and follow along.
00:14: I get dumped, throw my arms up over my head, and kick free of the kayak. This is where my elbow gets dinged.
00:16: I get my head above water, then the kayak flips over on me, get submerged again.
00:21: Get my head out again, then crack both shins on another boulder, go under again.
00:59: Another sighting of my sticker-insulated Nalgene bottle as I get back into the boat.
01:06: Back in the saddle and ready to rock.
We get through the next set of rapids, then beach our boats to tune them up and find out why my kayak is turning red. Turns out that ding was quite the ding, indeed. I can’t see it, but blood is pouring from a notch on my elbow. The only evidence I have that something is wrong is the look on Matt and David’s faces and the red stuff that’s dripping off of my fingertips.
Note – That notch ended up pouring blood every time I bent my elbow past 90 degrees for the rest of the evening. I went to the emergency room later that night, where they told me that I nicked a vein and then drained a subcutaneous pool of blood in my arm. I ended up going into a wee bit of shock from blood loss that night.
We take the requisite gory photos, David maws down a soggy sandwich, and run the rest of the river. Matt, despite his lack of experience on the river, runs through Hell’s Hole, a fun grinder that’s more likely to swallow you whole and spit you out ten feet downriver than it is to let you stay on your kayak.
David and I get dumped, but seeing Matt hold his paddle up in celebration is enough of a victory for me. It’s not enough for Skinner, though, since he hikes back upriver to give it another go.
Just before Fishtail (one of the rapids at the end of the run) there’s a peaceful little eddy where I sit back and watch Matt, then David drop out of site. I take my paddle out of the water and slowly drift towards the rapids, reflecting on the day – testing gear, jumping off rock ledges, watching Moseley gut his way through Hell’s Hole, and seeing more of my own blood than I ever have before. It was a pretty productive workday.
Thirty-one years of life has led to this: I’m at work, paddling a river with two good friends, dripping blood onto a kayak, ready to drop into another churning pile of water and rocks.
I say a quiet prayer of thanks right before I drop over the edge.
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Author: Billy Brown